Our Stolen Summer. Part 1: Escape from Panama!

Posted on October 19, 2020 by Lizzie Sherwood-Smith

We’re back to Panama after two months away, after what felt like some serious bunking off. You know that delicious, sneaky feeling of making time, being somewhere you are not supposed to be, with people you are not supposed to see. First to see horses, then boys, now it seems I’m sneaking back home to see my eldery parents. Funny how things change.

I was an expert at giving the world the slip as a teenager. As a bassoon player, there was always an orchestral rehearsal I could feign being at, and those can go on for hours. Turns out it is quite a lot harder to escape real life these days, particularly with 3 noisy kids and with an always working husband.

And it was going to be particularly to get out of Panama, where one of the strictest lockdowns in the world had meant that we had barely been able to leave our housing estate since March. Particularly to fly out of an officially closed airport during a global pandemic. Particularly when the whole purpose of our visit, to see our parents who are all in their eighties, brings them so much risk. None of it was going to be easy.

Our first hurdle was our immigration status. We moved to Panama in January, and we were waiting on our permanent residency status when the pandemic hit and all the government offices closed. So, while I could have flown back home to Europe sooner on a humanitarian flight, without permanent residency here, I would not have been allowed to fly back while the airport was still closed.

I nearly did it anyway. When my dear old Dad was admitted to hospital with a broken hip in July, I couldn’t bear being away another minute. I had an overwhelming desire to see him, to hug Mum, and to get to the beach at Selsey, the beautiful village in West Sussex where they live. After months of managing the kids in hot confinement, we all needed to run down with beach yelling into the freezing sea.

I decided I would fly home with the kids, spend some time with my family in England and them meet my husband in Ireland. We would live there and he would work remotely for his Panamanian office. I was thrilled. I started looking at schools, which in Ireland, would be open in September! They were staying shut in Panama till March 2021! I looked at houses we could rent, rang my friends at 3 in the morning because I couldn’t close my eyes for excitement (9am for them!) I was just so happy to be coming home! I didn’t tell my siblings because I was too scared they would tell me to stay away because of the risk to Mum and Dad.

I booked our tickets, sold half our furniture to an Indian family. They filled a truck with our stuff and even agreed at the last minute to take the cats! That night, my husband and I got filthy drunk drinking ‘Cosmopolitangs’. This tasty variation is made using a horrible kind of sherbet powder called Tang instead of Cranberry juice. As the alcohol (and the considerable E numbers) took hold, we reconsidered. We couldn’t just pack up and leave like this. My husband couldn’t do his job properly from the other side of the world with upside down time zones. Plus apart from being sort of imprisoned, it was actually quite nice where we live! What I needed was a break. A long, long break. And it could wait.

I canceled the flights. Resigned myself to staying in Panama. Tried to think how we could make it a fun summer with the kids, with nothing open and not being allowed to drive anywhere. We played more Monopoly. Taught them 21. Camped in the garden. Went round and round the housing estate like rats in a maze.

Finally, in August, we got an interview with the immigration office. We would have our permanent residency visas within a week. We could leave – and come back! The door was suddenly open. I booked flights immediately, a humanitarian flight with KLM via Paris, I rushed about packing up, got my negative Covid test, had to get a notarised letter written by my husband giving me permission to take the kids out of the country. Luckily, I already had all their birth certificates apostilled when entering them into school here, as with Jamaican birth certificates that would have been no joke!

We got our stamps and went to the airport the very next day. Because of Panama’s draconian quarantine laws, my husband couldn’t even take me to the airport to wave me off. I was literally shaking as I fumbled through all the paperwork with border control. I was hissing at the kids all masked up behind me to stand still and stop touching stuff, as the unfriendly and massively unhelpful border control official meticulously and unapprovingly double-checked each and every stamped and signed document. She made me remove the staples from each of the children’s piles of documents and reorder everything, even though the desk to put anything on was on her side of the plexiglass. She made me do it half-dropping everything where I stood. Finally, decided she would keep Daisy’s original birth certificate for good measure, presumably to file it forever in some distant and unreachable cupboard of bureaucratic lostness, and let us through! We were on our way!

This time I had confessed my plans to my siblings. They were pretty anxious. Traveling home to the UK with my three little germ magnets through how many airports? How exactly were we going to quarantine at mum and dad’s house? Hadn’t we bought chicken pox and scarlet fever with us on visits in the past, both of which could have been disasterous for Dad? What if we picked up the dreaded lurgy this time? As I set off in a cloud of disinfectant spray with masks, visors, hand sanitiser and medical wipes leaving a sparkling trail behind us, was I really sure that this was a good idea?

Read Part 2: Flying back to England